Long before the Spanish came to California, long before a soft, shiny metal lured hundreds of thousands here from across a continent, long before the fertile soil and mild climate made California an agricultural paradise, there were those who lived in our Golden State. From what is now the Oregon Border to what is now the Mexican Border there may have been as many an estimated 1,520,000 native people living in what is now California. These people were split into 500 subgroups and spoke more than 300 dialects of 100 different languages. They were primarily Neolithic hunter gatherers who lived off the abundance of the land and sea. For thousands of years, the Native peoples lived here long before European contact.
Very little remains of the native way of life here in California even though California has the largest population of Native people in the United States; some three quarters of a million. Throughout the 18th, 19th, and into the 20th centuries, the Natives of California were harried off their lands, decimated by disease to which they had no natural resistance, forcibly “civilized” during the Mission and Rancho periods, enslaved, and finally, all but exterminated. Their trails became roads and their village sites became towns. Yet, they too, are a vital part of California’s history and there are still a few places one can visit to catch a glimpse of what life was like before European Contact.
One of these places is Chaw’Se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. Located in a meadow between the towns of Pine Grove and Volcano, Chaw’Se Indian Grinding Rock SHP is one of the few places where the native peoples, primarily the Sierra Miwok, left permanent remains. The centerpiece of the park is a massive limestone outcropping covered with over 1,100 mortar holes and 360 identified petroglyphs. There are also two smaller “grinding stones” near the largest outcropping. Chaw’Se in Miwok means “mortar cup”, thus giving the park its Miwok name. Near the large stone, there are three reconstructed Miwok dwellings, known as U’macha, a reconstructed acorn granary and a reconstructed ceremonial roundhouse, known as a Hun’ge, which is still used by local native people today and a smaller “practice house” for the Native celebrants to practice their various dances. The park is also home to the Chaw’se Regional museum, which houses artifacts from various tribes in the Northern Sierra Nevada. Of special note is the museum’s collection of baskets and ceremonial items.
The park also features a round thatched structure for playing traditional Native “hand games”, a large field, a picnic area and a concession stand. There is a campground with 23 campsites and two nature trails, the North Loop and the South Loop. On the South Loop is a reconstructed Miwok village and on the North, there is an “environmental camp” consisting of seven traditional Miwok bark houses which is available for group camping. The park also holds an annual gathering of the local Native people in September and has a primitive living program for 3rd and 4th graders.
The park was a ranch until 1958 when it was acquired by the state from James and Serafino Scapuccino Jr., the last private owners. It was dedicated as a state park in 1968 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. There are remnants of the park’s over 100 years as a ranch in the park, including the ranch house, several outbuildings, an orchard site, a livestock pond site and a garden site. With its unique grinding stones, reconstructed native buildings and present use by local Natives, Chaw’Se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park is an excellent place to see how the first Natives of California lived.
GETTING THERE: From 414 Mason Street, take I-80 East to CA-12 East. Take CA-12 East to CA-88 East. Stay on CA-88 East until you get to Pine Grove-Volcano Road. Turn Left onto Pine Grove Volcano Road. The park is on your left at 14881 Pine Grove-Volcano Road, Pine Grove, CA. The phone number is (209) 296-7488. The park is open everyday except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day from sunrise to sunset. The museum is open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on the days that the park is open. There is an $8.00 per vehicle day use fee.
The surrounding area offers plenty of food and beverages choices. Both downtown Sutter Creek and Jackson have plenty of shopping and dining options.